"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Night of the Iguana

 

This is the play that will be performed at the Annual Tennessee Williams Festival here in Columbus, Mississippi.  I have tried very hard to like this play, to understand how it fits within Williams’ works and how it further elaborates on his previous themes; but I find it predictable, without the lyrical poetry that characterizes other works, and with uninteresting or even antithetical characters.

I know that Williams has stated that Shannon is a male Blanche DuBois – thus giving weight and importance to perhaps his most popular and perhaps best-developed character; but I only see indirect similarities. Both characters have come to the end of their ropes; and both have tried to reconcile spirituality with “the flesh”; but Blanche is by far the more sympathetic character.  Perhaps because she resembles Laura (Glass Menagerie), Alma (Eccentricities of a Nightingale), or Lucretia Collins (Portrait of a Madonna), all of whom express themselves with a lyrical poetry and madness which evoke an idyllic past; perhaps because of her apparent vulnerability (Williams makes it clear that Blanche is outwardly a swooning, delicate Southern woman, but inside she is a tiger), I find Blanche much more interesting, complex, and appealing.  Her ‘promiscuity’ is like that of Alma who, having been disappointed in an ideal love, and having been caught between spirit and flesh her whole life, turns to promiscuity.  That is, it makes sense given the dramatic tension that has been set up. 

Shannon is nothing of the kind.  Although we are supposed to believe that he is in similar conflict between spirituality and the flesh, he has summarily left the Church because of certain doctrinal differences – differences that most Christians have certainly felt.  Here he is talking about God:

Yeah, this angry, petulant old man.  I mean he’s represented  like a bad-tempered, childish, old, old, sick, peevish man – I mean like the sort of old man in a nursing home that’s putting together a jigsaw puzzle and can’t put it together and gets furious at it and kicks over the table.

And still, most theologies blame us for God’s faults in construction.  So, Shannon exhorts from the pulpit:

I shouted after them, go on, go home and close your house windows, all your windows and doors, against the truth about God!

What is new about this?  I certainly do not feel sorry for someone who should have known better, who should have realized this anti-truth before he joined the priesthood; and I am certainly not feeling sorry for him once he has left.  Moreover, he has not become promiscuous because of the need to resolve a great inner conflict, he simply likes underage pussy. 

I like Shannon even less because he has created in the image of Falstaff – a linguistic hero to the likes of Harold Bloom, but to me a blowhard braggidoccio.  His rant in Act I:

A tour by T. Lawrence Shannon is in his charge, completely – where to go, when to go, every detail of it…

And then he goes on talk about the perfect Chinaman cook and his artistry, a self-indulgent and self-important fugue on nothing of importance. Then in Act III, he continues with his bombast:

Ho, ho! Latta, it’s caught up with you, Latta, all the whores and tequila have hit your brain now, Latta,.  Don’t you realize what I mean to Blake Tours?  Haven’t you seen the brochure in which they mention, they brag, that special parties are conducted by the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, D.D. noted world traveller, lecturer, son of a minister and grandson of a bishop….

Falstaff exactly.  Not to be taken seriously.  He jests and japes with Maxine, shoving the liquor cart back and forth and other antics.  A foil to others more serious who might be Hannah, but more probably Maxine. Shannon, who is apparently in desperate need of spiritual succor and just plain human help in his emotional crisis turns first to Hannah, asking him if he can travel with her, then when she refuses, he turns quickly and easily to Maxine who as quickly says yes.  Are we to believe that such a self-serving and venal person is tragic?

Hannah, whom Williams has called one of his best characters because of her pure spirituality to me is nothing of the sort.  She is like a stern primary school teacher, not hectoring exactly, but certainly preaching.  Shannon should do this.  Shannon should do that.  Meanwhile she is penniless – why??? and basically mooching off whomever, dragging her grandfather with her and subjecting him to all kinds of difficulties.  OK, sixty-seven I can possibly understand, but NINETY-SEVEN?   Hardly.  And why?  I can understand why Mrs. Venable took Sebastian on all his European trips – she was clearly incestuously in love with him but Hannah?

Then there is Maxine, the Earth Mother, the welcoming and soothing soul.  What are we to make of her?  She is welcoming, I guess she wants company, even a broken down ex-priest, child abuser…Do we admire her?

And what about the Germans.  They are Nazis and the US is at war with Germany.  Why are they there in the first place?  Comic relief?  Williams describes them in a stereotypical way – blond, bronzed, etc. and full of burlesque hijinks.  What do they add?

The final line of the play is spoken by Hannah who says, “Oh, God, can’t we stop now? Finally? Please let us.  It’s so quiet here now”.  Yet, her wanderings with Nonno are not explained; nor does Williams paint her as an anguished person desperately needing rest.  Shannon, perhaps, but not Hannah.

Hannah states, earlier in Act III that she has considered permanence, or finding a resting place, but has discarded the notion because it has no meaning:

I still say that I’m not a bird, Mr. Shannon, I’m a human being and when a member of that fantastic species builds a nest in the heart of another, the question of permanence isn’t the first or even the last thing that’s considered…necessarily…?….always?

So why, then, the final lines which have more to do with a physical resting place than a spiritual one? Also in Act III she talks of the penniless, homeless, and destitute children she saw in Shanghai and their images have caused her spiritual angst, but there is no resolution to this particular crisis.  She neither decides to go and help them, or to turn to spiritual recourse – prayer, for example.  She simply recounts and goes on.

The recurrent theme of Williams – how we are doomed to live within our own skin and cannot or rarely achieve real communication with others – is not developed her.  There are the stage directions which show the compartments, or “cells” in which Maxine’s guests live, but then…..?  Is there finally real communication between Shannon and Hannah? Shannon and Maxine?  No.

So, I hope to get some insight from seeing the play put on her in Columbus, but I must say, I don’t expect too much insight.

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